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Rating the #1's

The NFL's top draft picks from worst to first.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 2, 2009

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Rating the #1's

The modern NFL began in 1970, with its formal merger with the American Football League including transfers of teams, inter-conference play, and uniform rules. This means there have now been 40 NFL drafts.

I thought it would be fun to review the performance of players taken first overall in the NFL draft. My question isn't necessarily how great the pick turned out to be for the team that drafted them, but how great a player he became.

The first thing to be expected of the top pick is that he becomes a starter. I give one point for each year he starts a majority of games. The second thing to be expected is that he becomes all-star, a perennial Pro Bowler. I include each year the player was named to the Pro Bowl, as well as years he was snubbed but was named to the AP All Pro First or Second Team. Whether or not the team is successful, playing at an all-star level is perhaps the main way to judge a top pick. I assign two points for each year he's a Pro Bowler or All-Pro. Third, he should be expected to help his team be successful. I assign a point for each year he's a starter for a Play-Off team, another for each year he's a starter for a conference champion, and another for each year he starts for a Super Bowl winner. Even though a player may may not be an all-star, the fact that he starts for a champion suggests that the pick was not wasted. Finally, an additional point is awarded for each year a player won an MVP award from a reputable source. Defensive players have a disadvantage here (though a couple have won it); I awarded Bruce Smith a half-point each for his two Defensive Player of the Year awards.

When taken together, the perfect score in one year is 7 - MVP and Super Bowl Champion. Terry Bradshaw, in 1978, is the only top pick to accomplish this.

But I then divide one's total score by the number of years played to determine "average productivity." Every year a player is in the league but doesn't start, or isn't particularly productive, that has to be factored in to establish his overall average productivity. If a player played too long past his prime, hurting his overall score, that's his responsibility.

Here is how one great player, non-#1 pick Jerry Rice, fares for a career:

Jerry Rice

Years starting:: 19
Playoffs (as a starter): 15
All Star: 13 years (counts double)=26
Conference titles: 4
Super Bowl Titles: 3
MVP: 1

Total: 68
Total # of years in the league: 20
Average: 3.4

Only two top picks are better, but this is not surprising as Rice turned out to be a very special player. The advantage to this system is that it can compare players of different positions. Starting and making the Pro Bowl will earn a player three points right there, regardless of how well the team does, and regardless of whether he's a tackle or a quarterback.

And this system could be used to rank all players, not just top picks. It is also a "work in progress" for active players, who could improve or lower their scores next year. Yes, this year's pick Matt Stafford is in the rankings, because he's already better than one top pick. So this is not a reflection on him, and I have put active players capable of moving up in the rankings by highlighting them in bold. You could say that they don't really count right now, but that this is where they would rank if their career ended today. I have put Hall of Famers in italics. Here is the list:

40. Bo Jackson: Points: 0; Years: 0; Avg: 0. Did not sign with Tampa, played baseball instead. Re-entered draft the following year, and drafted in a later round by the Raiders and made Pro Bowl. As a top pick, however, he did absolutely nothing, and this reflects very poorly on Tampa's management at the time.

39. Matt Stafford: Pts: O; Yrs: 0; Avg: 0. But at least he signed with the team that drafted him. Let's check back in a year.

38. Walt Patulski: Pts: 0; Yrs: 5; Avg: 0. Spent 5 years in the league as a Bill. Not only did not start a season, he did not start a single game

37. Ki-Jana Carter: Pts: 1; Yrs: 7; Avg: 0.143. Blew out knee in first pre-season game, limiting his effectiveness.

36. Steve Emtman: Pts: 1; Yrs: 6; Avg: 0.167. Like Carter, an injury-plagued career.

35. Aundray Bruce: Pts: 2; Yrs: 11; Avg: 0.182 There's something to be said for hanging around the League for 11 seasons, but more should be expected of a top pick.

34. Alex Smith Pts: 1; Yrs: 3; Avg: 0.333. Suffered from revolving door of 49er offensive coaches, but hasn't played well.

33. JaMarcus Russell: Pts: 1; Yrs: 2; Avg: 0.5; Unlikely to succeed unless he's released from Oakland or Al Davis dies.

32. David Carr: Pts: 5; Yrs: 7; Avg: 0.714. Facing career as a back-up from now on.

31. Tim Couch: Pts: 4; Yrs: 5; Avg: 0.8. Did manage to help elevate an exansion franchise to mediocrity, but did not impress enough to hang onto his job.

30. Ricky Bell: Pts: 5; Yrs: 6; Avg: 0.833. Did have some productive years in Tampa rb. Died young of a heart condition.

29. Kenneth Sims: Pts: 7; Yrs: 8; Avg: 0.875. Rated this high mainly because he made Super Bowl with Patriots in 1985.

28. Jeff George: Pts: 10; Yrs: 12; Avg: 0.833. Had some productive years when he had great receivers.

27. Courtney Brown: Pts:  6; Yrs: 6; Avg: 1.0. Injury-plagued career with Browns and Broncos.

26. John Matuszak: Pts: 9; Yrs: 9; Avg: 1.0. Partier and actor started for the 1980 NFL champion Raiders.

25. Dan Wilkinson: Pts: 13; Yrs: 13; Avg: 1.0. Solid but unspectacular player.

24. Vinny Testaverde: Pts: 21; Yrs: 21; Avg: 1.0. Difficult start to career in Tampa. Later in career, sometimes good, never great.

23. Jim Plunkett: Pts: 17; Yrs: 15; Avg: 1.133. Two Super Bowl victories as a game manager for Raiders late in career.

22. Steve Bartkowski: Pts: 15; Yrs: 12; Avg: 1.25. Two-time Pro-Bowler, three play-off appearences as Falcons qb.

21. Tom Cousineau: Pts: 9; Yrs: 6; Avg: 1.5. Spent time in CFL before joining Browns. Made two All-Pro teams.

20. Carson Palmer: Pts: 9; Yrs: 6; Avg: 1.5. By his third season as starter, was considered third-best qb in league. Accomplished little since then.

19. Irving Fryar: Pts: 29; Yrs: 17; Avg: 1.706. Sometime Pro Bowler who played on some good and very many bad teams.

18. Drew Bledsoe: Pts: 25; Yrs: 14; Avg: 1.786. Some good years, but his best was never as good as was expected of a #1 pick, which is why he lost one job to Tom Brady and another to Tony Romo.

17. George Rogers: Pts: 13; Yrs: 7; Avg: 1.857. Led league in rushing as rookie, earned Super Bowl ring in his last season.

16. Michael Vick: Pts: 12; Yrs: 6; Avg: 2.0. His brief (pre-prison) career seemed up-and-down, but won some play-off games and made some Pro Bowls.

15. Keyshawn Johnson: Pts: 23; Yrs: 11; Avg: 2.091. Very productive but never dominant; won Super Bowl with Tampa in 2002 but kicked off the team the following year.

14. Russell Maryland: Pts: 22; Yrs: 10; Avg: 2.200. Starter for three Super Bowl champions, though just one Pro Bowl.

13. Ed "Too Tall" Jones: Pts: 37; Yrs: 16; Avg: 2.313. 5-time Pro Bowler, 3-time NFC Champion with a Super Bowl Ring, Jones was a longtime pillar of Tom Landry's "Doomsday Defense."

12. Mario Williams: Pts: 7; yrs: 3; Avg: 2.333. One of the top defensive ends in the league with a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro selection to his credit.

11. Eli Manning: Pts: 12; yrs: 5; Avg: 2.4. Made play-offs every year he was full-time starter, won a Super Bowl.

10. Billy Sims: Pts: 12; yrs:5; Avg: 2.4. Single-handedly carried the Lions to winning seasons and play-off appearences in early 1980's; an elite back in an era full of Hall of Fame backs, his career was cut short by injury.

9. Orlando Pace: Pts: 31; yrs: 12; Avg: 2.583; The Rams' left tackle played in two Super Bowls and made numerous Pro Bowl teams.

8. Lee Roy Selmon: Pts: 25; yrs: 9; Avg: 2.778. Tampa's first-ever pick as an expansion team earned seven Pro Bowls and helped elevate the lowly Bucs to the play-offs three times.

7. Terry Bradshaw: Pts: 37; yrs: 13; Avg: 2.846. Statistically average even in his own era, he quarterbacked four Super Bowl championship teams. The first pick in the merged NFL draft, he's the only top pick with four rings.

6. Bruce Smith: Pts: 56; yrs: 19; Avg: 2.947. Buffalo's Smith would rank still higher if he didn't spend three years with the Redskins pursuing the career sack record. But unquestionably an all-time great.

5. Earl Campell: Pts: 22; yrs: 7; Avg: 3.14. In the 1978-80 seasons, Campell was the best and most valuable player perhaps in the entire history of the modern NFL, even if the more quasi-official MVP award went to people like Brian Sipe. Over-dependence on Campell cut short his career, but he is deservedly in the Hall of Fame for what he accomlished.

4. John Elway: Pts: 51; yrs: 16; Avg: 3.188. One wonders what he might have accomplished if he actually had a quarterbacks coach in the first half of his career. The only 5-time conference champion among the top picks.

3. Troy Aikman: Pts: 39; yrs: 12; Avg: 3.25. Drafted by a 3-13 Cowboy squad in 1989, had brought home three Super Bowl trophies seven years later, and was a more consistent, Pro Bowl-caliber player than Bradshaw.
2. Peyton Manning: Pts: 42; yrs: 11; Avg: 3.818. Drafted by a 3-13 squad, Manning led the Colts to 9 play-off appearences (with an often-bad defense), not to mention a ring, with 9 Pro Bowls and three MVP's to his own credit.

1. Jake Long: Pts: 4, yrs: 1; Avg: 4.0. The plain facts: pre-Long the Dolphins went 1-15. With Long they went 11-5 and won their division. And Long made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. It could be that as his career progresses his average will go down, but as it is Long's rookie performance, personally and in terms of adding to the team's success, looks like it's easily the greatest of all time.

Of course, I could have missed a point here and there, so it's possible Elway is really ahead of Aikman, as most people would prefer it. But it's not a surpise that the top six retired players on the list are the only Hall of Famers, with Peyton Manning and Pace, at least, certain to join them. I believe this suggests I am on the right track on how to assess a player's career.


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